Well-Being Mental Health

There will soon be a 911 for mental health emergencies

a sign with information for the national suicide prevention lifeline

Story at a glance

  • Suicide rates are at their highest since WWII.
  • The FCC is proposing a bill to designate 988 as the dial code for the national suicide prevention lifeline.
  • If approved, the proposal says the dial code will be set up within 18 months.

If you’re experiencing a physical health emergency or are in danger, you can call 911. But what about a mental health emergency? What if you’re in danger of taking your own life? 

The Federal Communications Commission unanimously voted to move a proposal forward that would designate 988 as the dial code for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Founded in 2004, the network of 161 crisis centers is backed by the federal government and provides a toll-free number for anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Last year, their crisis centers received more than 2 million calls and 100,000 texts. 

“They are a life saving resource,” said Commissioner Brendan Carr at the FCC board meeting on Dec. 12. “But not enough Americans know about this help or might not know the number, which is 1-800-273-8255. Shortening that number to 988 as we propose today could make a difference.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai pointed to two incidents in recent years that suggest increased awareness of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is effective in getting Americans to reach out for help.

The day following the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams, Pai said the network received the highest daily call volume in its history. Its director credited the increase of calls to the media mentioning the lifeline while covering Williams’s death.  

Pai also cited the song “1-800-273-8255,” by artist Logic, as contributing to the second highest daily call volume of the lifeline’s history on the day the song was released. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second most common cause of death among teenagers and young adults, and the 10th leading cause of death for people of all ages. Those rates are even higher for veterans and LGBTQ people. But advocates say that technology could be the solution. 

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel added that younger generations tend to text more than talk on the phones and said it was an important factor to consider when establishing lines of communication for people in need. The Crisis Text Line is a nonprofit organization that offers free crisis counseling to anyone in the U.S. at 741741, as well as people in Canada (at 686868) and the United Kingdom (at 85258). 

The proposal is now open for public comment. If implemented, the dial code will be set up within 18 months, according to the proposal.